So, here’s the mistake people are making: they’re putting way too much thought into a toy elf.
For the past couple of years, screeching hordes have been stomping their feet and howling about the damnation that will befall us because parents are giving their kids a toy elf and telling them that if they don’t behave Santa will hate them forever.
Okay, I’ve hyperbole-d enough.
Or have I? Here’s an article that’s pretty close to ground zero for the anti-Elf-on-the-Shelf movement.
And it goes on, such as with this recent over-the-top reaction to Elf on the Shelf.
In fairness, the latter author seems to be joking around at times, but he also seems sincere in his criticisms.
Seriously, people are overthinking the hell out of this.
Many think-pieces have been written about how this is normalizing surveillance and enforcing behaviour. Writers have been complaining that kids are being told that this elf sees them when they’re sleeping, knows when they’re awake, knows when they’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness … wait, that sounds familiar. Where have I heard that?
Oh right, that’s exactly what kids have been told since the days when Thomas Nast was creating illustrations of Santa spying on kids with a telescope and taking notes on behaviour.
I grew up being told that Santa was watching everything I did and collecting data on me to evaluate my worth as a human being. So did everyone who grew up in a Santa-friendly household.
And we turned out okay, didn’t we?
Okay, maybe we didn’t, but if we’re a messed-up world it’s surely not because we’re scared to misbehave.
How is Elf on the Shelf any different? It’s the same thing, only there’s an intermediary. If anything, the message being sent is that Santa can’t actually see everything you do so he has to send an inanimate object to do the spying. That’s actually less scary. If I were a kid and didn’t want Santa to find out about my dirty deeds I’d know exactly what household item to toss into the nearest ravine.
If we’re concerned that Elf on the Shelf normalizes surveillance, here are a few other things we need to toss in the dumpster:
Simon Says, a game teaches kids to accept authoritarianism.
Hide-and-Seek, which normalizes stalking.
Building snowmen, which is a metaphor for genetic manipulation.
Doggie, Doggie, Who’s Got Your Bone, which teaches kids to be petty thieves.
Elmo, who teaches bad grammar.
London Bridges, a game that makes children terrified of travelling by road.
Teddy bears, which normalize keeping bears in captivity.
Santa, because this is a guy who clearly gives some kids better toys than others, so he’s a nightmare for childhood self-esteem. And because he’s a dirty spy and a miner of data.
And the thing is, every one of my silly complaints in the above list is as valid as the complaint that Elf on the Shelf normalizes surveillance.
So, then, what’s the other complaint? That Elf on the Shelf is all about marketing. Should we take a moment to reflect on the history of Santa Claus, the most potent marketing figure in the history of North America? Santa is all about marketing. There’s a reason he sits in the middle of a mall or department store to find out what kids want for Christmas when they’re within earshot of parents with credit cards. There’s a reason why when you watch Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade on TV or in person you see an endless stream of sponsored floats. Santa exists to get you to spend money.
Christmas itself is a massive marketing tool, which is why it has become a secular holiday as much as it is a religious holiday. Christmas is all about buying things and people eat that message up.
Elf on the Shelf is just a clever little marketing idea that worked. There was a book involved — damn, I wish I’d come up with this marketing ploy.
So, is this really about Elf on the Shelf somehow being evil, or is it about Elf on the Shelf being different from “how we did it when we were kids”? I suspect there’s a large helping of the latter at play. How can we have problems with Elf on the Shelf but not have the same problems with Santa Claus?
When it comes down to it, the people freaking out are adults. Are the kids? Do we really think there are kids who are terrified because they are under surveillance by a toy elf who is going to tell Santa when they’re bad? Do we think kids are that fragile?
The kids just want to have fun. This is a game. It’s not damaging them. They are playing. When the game is over, the game is over.
Who are we demonizing when we try to make ourselves look smart by tossing out complaints? Parents. Parents who just want to give their kids a fun addition to the holidays. Do they deserve that? Hell no.
Let’s relax a little. This is a benign bit of holiday fun. Put the cynicism aside, call off the fun police, and let kids and their parents play this simple little game for a few weeks.